Review: Shall We Not Revenge, by D. M. Pirrone
Allium, 2014. 323 pp. $17
For most Chicagoans, the winter of 1872 means untold hardship. The Great Fire has ravaged the city, destroying thousands of homes and workplaces, and the shantytowns that spring up to house the destitute and jobless offer no comforts or hope. People do what they must to stay warm in bitter cold, make it through another day, and keep their families together. Relief is paltry and slow, but criminals may be found everywhere. Gang bosses know where there’s money to be made, often thanks to corrupt police, who look the other way for a cut of the take.
It’s in this brutal, gritty atmosphere that someone has killed a rabbi in his synagogue, bashing in his head with one silver menorah and stealing another. Was the motive robbery? The rabbi was much loved in his struggling neighborhood for good works, so it’s unlikely that anyone held a grudge. Yet he was also engaged in secret activities that no one wishes to talk about.
Newly appointed detective Frank Hanley must solve the case, and he faces long odds. Even beyond the native distrust city residents have for Chicago’s finest or the immigrant population’s belief that police are oppressors, to the Jews mourning their beloved leader, Hanley’s an outsider, an Irish Catholic who couldn’t possibly understand their ways or respect them.
From this premise, Pirrone (a pseudonym) crafts an engrossing story that keeps twisting this way and that until the very end. It includes a growing attraction between Hanley and Rivka Kelmansky, the late rabbi’s daughter, who helps him gather clues and navigate the cultural shoals that threaten to swamp the investigation at every turn. I like how the author frames Jewish rituals and customs from Hanley’s perspective, and how his misperceptions of them sometimes lead him to the wrong conclusions. I also like how she describes the city, the poor, modern police procedure in its infant days, and the underworld that so often evades justice. The sense of time and place is so strong that it almost carries the narrative by itself.
He sighed and trudged down the sidewalk. The cold kept the planks from sinking into the frozen mud beneath and dampened the pervasive odors of moist lumber and rotting vegetables. The light was thin and gray, like the remnants of snow on the ground, and flurries swirled in the air. Not enough to cover the dirty snow-crust and muck, unfortunately. . . . He loathed winter . . . [e]specially now, with the city’s scorched bones still bared to the sky and the taste of smoke in the air.
What I disliked was how the author writes her characters. With few exceptions, they’re either all good or rotten to the core. Hanley in particular feels too good to be true, not least his rapid recovery from severe injuries. He’s always on the right side, without prejudices, a good boy who even washes the dinner dishes and treats all women with respect. His only flaw is a bad temper, but what o’ that? Likewise, his immediate boss has unshakable trust in Frank–a neophyte–which leads to interventions that feel contrived, at times. More nuanced portrayals would have given Pirrone even more tension than she achieves.
Her prose, vivid though it is in description, falters at emotional moments. Too often, the narrative tells what the characters feel, sometimes even to repeat what they’ve already shown.
That said, I enjoyed Shall We Not Revenge for the story and the setting, a historical background that I’d never read about.
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.